In Israel, Mountain Gazelles Are in Danger From All Sides

Gazelles are considered in serious danger of extinction, with around 300 poached every year, researchers warn

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Zafrir Rinat

Hundreds of mountain gazelles are hunted or run over every year in Israel. So says a scientific survey of these mammals in Israel, published on Wednesday.

The survey demonstrates that a large percentage of the gazelle population now lives in areas surrounded by construction, totally cut off from other gazelles. Its authors are calling for strict enforcement that would reduce poaching and for expanding efforts to create animal crossings on the main highways.

Gazelles near Gaza, November 30, 2018. Threats to the species are increasing.
Gazelles near Gaza, November 30, 2018. Threats to the species are increasing.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Palestine mountain gazelle has become almost extinct in nature. In recent years the number of individuals has been relatively stable. There are almost 5,000 of them here – the largest number in the world. Despite these figures, the species is still considered in serious danger of extinction, and the threats to it are steadilyincreasing. Recently Prof. Yoram Yom-Tov of Tel Aviv University and Dr. Uri Roll of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have gathered data on the state of the animal in Israel, and have published their findings in Oryx – The International Journal of Conservation, a Cambridge University publication. Also assisting in the research were Amir Balaban of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and members of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

In the past information about gazelles was gathered through a seasonal census, but in recent years there have been additional means, such as documenting observations of animals by Nature and Parks Authority inspectors using handheld computers. At the same time, the Wildlife Hospital in Ramat Gan’s Safari Park, which began operations in 2005, collects data about animals that have been hurt.

According to the survey, from 2009 to 2017, 467 dead or wounded gazelles were found on Israel’s roads. Over this period, the number of gazelles hurt every year increased from 14 to 86. The number is estimated to be even higher, since but not all of them were found. This is clear evidence of the high price exacted by highways that fragment the animals’ habitats.

The Arava gazelle, a rare subspecies that lives in the Arava desert.
The Arava gazelle, a rare subspecies that lives in the Arava desert.Credit: Doron Nissim / Israel Nature and Parks Authority

There are currently several ecological crossings in Israel, like those on the Wadi Milek highway near the Ein Tut interchange, and on the section of Highway 6 that crosses Ramot Menashe. But the survey’s authors are calling to create additional crossings to reduce the lethal harm caused to gazelles.

A greater threat than road accidents is poaching of gazelles, which are designated a protected species. Every year an estimated 300 gazelles are poached in Israel, mainly in the areas of the Judean Plain and the Galilee, but the numbers may actually be far higher. The gazelles are shot or pursued by off-road vehicles accompanied by dogs.

The relatively few Nature and Parks Authority inspectors find it difficult to stop the well-organized hunters, who usually have sophisticated night-vision equipment, and sometimes resort to violence. Hunters who are caught usually receive small fines – although the Wildlife Protection Law allows sentences of up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 150,000 shekels ($43,650).

Today, the largest gazelle population in Israel is located in several locations in the Galilee and Golan Heights.
Today, the largest gazelle population in Israel is located in several locations in the Galilee and Golan Heights.Credit: Dr. Benny Shalmon

The authors of the survey say the inspectors should be given equipment necessary for keeping track of poachers and catching them, and call to change the legislation so that the court will be obligated to impose minimum prison sentences in the event of a conviction.

Naturally fearful

In the early days of the state, the Palestine mountain gazelle was hunted in large numbers, until only a few hundred were left in the wild. Their situation improved after nature preservation legislation and the start of the Nature and Parks Authority’s activities. A real change took place after the Six-Day War, with the occupation of the Golan Heights. The gazelles in that region, which almost disappeared because of the hunting that took place under Syrian rule, recovered, and were also reinforced by several hundred animals that were caught and transferred from the Ramat Issachar region.

Israel’s gazelle population reached a peak of almost 10,000 in the 1980s. But the damage that they caused to agriculture led to a thinning out of the population by the Nature and Parks Authority, by means of shooting. In addition, they suffered badly from the hoof and mouth disease that spread in the north in the 1980s. Aside from the Palestine mountain gazelle, another species called the Negev or Dorcas gazelle lives in the south of the country. A rare subspecies called the Arava gazelle lives in the Arava Desert.

Gazelles in the south of Israel.
Gazelles in the south of Israel.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In recent years the population has recovered, one reason being the gazelles’ high reproduction rate in nature and their ability to adapt to various habitats, even if the areas have undergone changes due to human activity. However, gazelles are fearful by nature, and studies have shown that they remain at a distance of at least 700 meters from populated areas.

The largest population of gazelles in Israel is found in several concentrations in the Galilee and the Golan Heights. They number about 3,000 and can travel over relatively large areas to find food sources and places to hide from predators. The situation is entirely different in the center of the country: According to the survey, there are 11 gazelle populations in this area that remain imprisoned in small “islands” surrounded by human settlement, fences and roads. Small and isolated populations suffer from genetic problems due to limited reproduction opportunities and it’s harder for them to recover from hunting injuries and predators.

Isolated populations can be found around Hof Hasharon National Park and in the dunes of Nitzanim and Ashdod. Six additional populations live in areas where there is a partial access to adjacent areas. But construction plans that would eliminate additional habitats, like those being advanced in the Modi’in region, east of Rosh Ha’ayin and west of Jerusalem, will exacerbate the problem.

According to the survey authors, the construction of additional ecological crossings would help not only to reduce traffic accidents but would also enable the gazelles to overcome their isolation in some areas. They say that it’s even possible to consider catching and transferring some of them from one site to another to create a broader genetic pool.

Another threat to the gazelle population is an increased presence of feral dogs, mainly in areas where the gazelles are penned in by fences and highways. The researchers recommend thinning out the feral dog population, which has increased in recent years.